I wrote about Leymah Gbowee a couple of years ago in these very blog pages. Ode was so impressed with her that they reprinted a variation on my post in the print version of the magazine. Now The New York Times has gotten on our bandwagon.
“Unusual Benefactor Finances Book Tour” | By Julie Bosman | Reprinted from The New York Times, September 16, 2011
It is trickier than ever for an author to persuade a publisher to finance a traditional book tour. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are decreasing, travel is expensive, and money for marketing and promotion is increasingly being spent online.
So it is striking that Leymah Gbowee, a relatively unknown author of a memoir describing her life as a peace activist in war-torn Liberia, has just embarked on an eight-city tour to promote her book, “Mighty Be Our Powers,” which was released by the tiny Beast Books on Tuesday.
The tour is possible because Ms. Gbowee has wrangled an unusual sponsor: Leonard Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble, who is personally covering the costs.
“The nature of a book such as this” usually means that “there wouldn’t be a book tour,” Mr. Riggio said in an interview this week. “Leymah mentioned that she was looking to get sponsorship of a tour that she wanted to do on college campuses and churches, to talk about the struggle for peace and social justice in Africa. So I said, ‘If you need a sponsor, I’ll be glad to do it.’ ”
The arrangement is unusual. Publishers usually pay the bills for authors to travel, not the heads of major bookstore chains (the few that are left standing, anyway).
But Mr. Riggio said he was sufficiently dazzled by Ms. Gbowee during a lunch in June at the Barnes & Noble headquarters in Manhattan that he volunteered to help.
The luncheon meeting was arranged by David Steinberger, the president and chief executive of the Perseus Books Group, and Tina Brown, the editor in chief of Beast Books, which is a joint venture between the Newsweek Daily Beast Company and Perseus. Mr. Steinberger said he wanted to get the book on Mr. Riggio’s radar, since it is the kind of title that could have easily become lost among the many books released in September.
“It doesn’t have the characteristics of an obvious blockbuster best seller,” Mr. Steinberger said, adding that Beast Books has printed 50,000 copies. “It doesn’t look like a lot of the books that are on the top of The New York Times best-seller list.”
Mr. Riggio had never heard of Ms. Gbowee until he watched a documentary that featured her, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which was produced by Abigail E. Disney, a filmmaker and philanthropist who is also a grand-niece of Walt Disney. “Then I looked at the book and thought, ‘O.K., how resonant will it be, and how are you going to promote it?’ ” Mr. Riggio said.
Ms. Gbowee, who is 39 and lives in Ghana, said she had no idea who Mr. Riggio was either. “I really didn’t know he was a big deal,” she said in a phone conversation before an event in New York this week. “I went to Google to read about him.”
At their meeting in June, over a lunch of grilled fish, pasta and salad, Ms. Gbowee told her life story to Mr. Steinberger, Ms. Brown, Mr. Riggio and several other Barnes & Noble executives, at one point describing her defiant brushes with armed guards while protesting the civil war in Liberia, which ended in 2003.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” Mr. Steinberger said.
The idea for the book originally came from Ms. Brown, who suggested it to Ms. Gbowee after meeting her at a conference last year. It was written with the help of Carol Mithers, a journalist and author.
“I wanted her to really put her whole self into it, to bring in all the enriching personal details that show you who she really is and what she’s done,” Ms. Brown said in an e-mail. But, Ms. Brown added, the budget at Beast Books would not have allowed for the tour that Ms. Gbowee has begun.
In recent years many book tours have drastically changed format. Declining traffic in bookstores has forced publishers to look for other locations, so the authors who do go on tour often appear in grocery stores and casinos, at corporations and discount retailers, all in an effort to find potential book buyers where they shop and work.
Ms. Gbowee’s tour is focused on universities, churches and nonprofit organizations, in keeping with the book’s themes of women’s rights and community activism. This month she will deliver a speech at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative; her tour includes appearances at a church in Washington and the Los Angeles Public Library. (She is not planning to do any readings or signings in bookstores, but local stores will sell books at events.)
While Mr. Riggio said he met with authors on a regular basis—probably once a month—Ms. Gbowee stood out because of his longstanding interest in civil rights and nonviolent protest. He emphasized that the donation came from his personal funds, not through Barnes & Noble. (He declined to name the exact sum, saying only that it was “not a lot of money.”)
“If you met her and she said, ‘I need some money to help me get my message out,’ ” Mr. Riggio said, “I guarantee you would write her a check.”
By Susan Corso | For spiritual nourishment, please visit www.susancorso.com